Samuel Hearne Critical Essays


(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

Samuel Hearne 1745-1792

English-Canadian narrative writer.

Samuel Hearne's reputation rests on A Journey from Prince of Wales's Fort in Hudson's Bay to the Northern Ocean, (1795), which is considered a classic of Canadian-American literature of exploration. Hearne's work, commonly shortened to A Journey to the Northern Ocean, tells of his three attempts from 1769 to 1772 to find the source of copper that Canadian Indians traded for English goods and, more importantly, to locate the fabled Northwest Passage that would enable European ships to travel by water across the American continent en route to Asia. On both counts Hearne's efforts proved futile: the copper mine he located near the Arctic Ocean held only small deposits of the metal, and his journeys laid to rest the myth that a navigable waterway existed that could shorten the distance from Europe to the Pacific Ocean. Nevertheless, Hearne's narrative, filled with details about the life of native peoples and the flora and fauna of the continent, was an immediate popular success throughout Europe and North America. The narrative continues to be read by students of Canadian and Amerindian history and anthropology for some of the earliest firsthand accounts of aboriginal customs and folklore. Students of literature also appreciate Hearne's account for its narrative sophistication in addition to its relatively sympathetic portrayal of the native peoples on whom Hearne relied to complete his journey to the Arctic Ocean.

Biographical Information

Hearne was born in London in 1745, but his mother moved the family to Dorset after the death of his father in 1748. As he showed little interest in school, Hearne was sent to work as a seaman's apprentice around 1756. He served in the British navy during the Seven Years War (1756-63) and in 1766 found employment with the Hudson's Bay Company in British Canada, whaling and trading with the Inuit. In 1769 Hearne received orders to travel to the Arctic Ocean to search for the Northwest Passage and to locate a source of copper. Although Hearne's first two attempts quickly ended in failure, they significantly informed his planning for the third attempt, which was begun in December 1770. Hearne joined a nomadic group of Chipewyan hunters, and eventually reached the shore of the Arctic Ocean in 1771. Upon his return in 1772 he was sent by the Hudson's Bay Company to establish the Cumberland House, the company's first inland post, which he completed in 1774. Two years later he was made governor of Fort Prince of Wales, a position he held until 1782, when French warships, allied with the Americans against British rule, attacked the fort. Hearne was forced to surrender to noted navigator and author Admiral la Pérouse, who initially seized Hearne's manuscript of his narrative, but returned it on condition that Hearne complete and publish the work. Hearne spent the next several years working on the account of his journeys. Retiring from the Hudson's Bay Company in 1786 due to ill health, Hearne returned to his native England, where he died in 1792, one month after selling his narrative.

Major Works

Hearne used the journals he kept from 1769 to 1772 to fashion the narrative of A Journey to the Northern Ocean. Much of the work is concerned with the flora and fauna he encountered on his expeditions. Many of the etchings he made of animals, plants, and landscapes continue to be reproduced today. His descriptions of life among the Chipewyan people who aided him on his third expedition have provided early and valuable firsthand accounts of aboriginal life, social structures, and beliefs. Hearne's story of adventure and hardship focuses largely on his adaptating to the practices of, and accommodating the needs of, his guides. His depiction of the Amerindians with whom he travelled is generally sympathetic, though in his description of the Massacre at Bloody Fall he expresses horror at being powerless to stop his guides from massacring twenty-two defenseless Inuit. Although A Journey to the Northern Ocean failed to completely halt other expeditions in search of the Northwest Passage, its portrait of an explorer willing to adopt strange customs and ways in order to succeed and survive has had an important influence on historical and anthropological studies.

Critical Reception

Journey to the Northern Ocean was an immediate popular success, both in North America and in Europe, where it was soon translated into a half dozen other languages. William Wordsworth, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Edgar Allan Poe, and Henry David Thoreau all mentioned Hearne's narrative as an inspiration for their own works. Although the accuracy of his maps has often been questioned, Hearne's presentation of the terrain, plants, and animals, particularly in his etchings, have earned praise from naturalists to this day. Historians and anthropologists have long taken an interest in Hearne's writing for its valuable information on northern aboriginal customs and beliefs. As literature, Hearne's A Journey to the Northern Ocean is almost unanimously praised for its style, a fact made more remarkable considering Hearne's lack of formal education. In recent decades literary criticism has tended to focus on Hearne's character, in particular whether he was “timorous” in his dealings with the Chipewyan people, as John Bartlet Brebner has argued, or progressive in his adoption of Amerindian ways and leadership. Hearne's often quoted and frequently anthologized depiction of the Massacre at Bloody Fall, and his own passivity in retarding the slaughter, is the subject of much scholarly debate. Other literary studies have tended variously to use Hearne's account to discuss European notions of discovery, the explorer's position as a part of a larger European imperial project, and the formation of North American conceptions of nature. A Journey to the Northern Ocean, with its central plot of an Englishman living within a strange civilization as he slowly makes his way across the landscape of the Canadian Northwest Territories, continues to provoke debate among academics and interest among readers.